Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Am I a sceptic or a cynic

This has been written in a bit of a blur, so apologies if it seems blurry at times or all the time.

Sometimes I wonder if I really am a sceptic or maybe just a cynic?

This winter, I am going off on a short tour of Skeptics in the Pub venues, so I have been pondering on when the sceptic (or skeptic) movement began to mean something to me and why.

I think it all began in Lavenham, the small Suffolk town that was home to witch trials, both real and fictional. I bought a copy of James Randi - Psychic Investigator, a spin off from his British TV series where he challenged dowsers and psychics to offer proof of their magical abilities.

This led to my first brushing with sceptics as an organisation and way of thinking about the world. At this stage, it seemed the main preoccupations were ghosts, UFOs, bigfoot and psychic mediums. These had all played a part in my childhood, being a sucker for the books of Eric Von Daniken and a regular reader of The Unexplained magazine. These mainly seemed to be things of fun with little harm in people's preoccupation with elusive lake monsters, unlikely apes in woodland and ectoplasmic encounters. The exception was psychic mediums. The more I looked into them, the more I found them a scurrilous, venal, abusive breed of human. They also seemed quite litigious. I was angry at them, and sad that human beings, with their anxiety and confusion over death and loss, were such easy pray to such clumsy charlatans. What continues to surprise me is just how useless most psychic mediums are, it's like watching a particularly slow game of Guess Who.

"did someone here know someone with glasses? No. Did they have a hat? No. Are they a woman?"

Carl Sagan wrote about this beautifully in The Demon-Haunted World.

"I know how much I want to believe that my parents have just abandoned the husks of their bodies, like insects or snakes moulting, and gone somewhere else. I understand that those very feelings might make me easy prey even for an unclever con, or for normal people unfamiliar with their unconscious minds, or for those suffering from a dissociative psychiatric disorder. Reluctantly, I rouse some reserves of scepticism."

It was reading The Demon-Haunted World that helped me realise that scepticism was more than tutting and laughing at beliefs that seemed truly preposterous in a civilisation with access to incredible reserves of knowledge.

Suddenly, it was more than methods of conjuring and spewing ectoplasm, it was about modern medicine, evolution, environmental disasters and even human rights. As far as I could see, rousing your scepticism was required on almost everything, though time constraints meant that you would have to put things in order of importance.

From an everyday, self-interested point of view, if you are being sold an item that claims it can do something, then before you spend too much money on that hair replacement therapy, cold cure, cancer vanquisher, you want to know that you are not being peddled false hope. Placebo effect is all well and good, but there is a point of taking the memory of the piss if you are being charged top dollar for a sugar pill. Then, there is the danger. Being offered placebo wrapped in miracle rumours may be fine for those niggling things may be relatively harmless, but if money is being spent on a nothing instead of tested remedies, danger lurks. What is "all a bit of fun" becomes life threatening.

Creationism or its poorly disguised doppelganger, intelligent design, has been frequently criticised and mocked. Maybe you can believe what you want to believe, but you can't teach what you want to teach. If a French teacher teaches you that "can you please tell me the way to the hospital" is "oooo mango hoppity bang flip" in French, you may be embarrassed and annoyed when you face the laughter of Parisians some months later. If you then take the French teacher to task and he replies, "well, that is what I believe the French is" , it may seem ridiculous. Does it matter that people are taught the currently correct ideas of science? I think so if you are living in a culture that reaps the benefit of that knowledge, it seems short-sighted and perilous to reject it all while enjoying the bits you like. As understanding of genetics increases during this century, we will have decisions, possibly personal decisions concerning our family or ourselves, to make so it seems best to be armed with knowledge that is tested, examined and reputable.

Sceptics are often accused of being close-minded, I think this can be an issue. To question the new age and the woo-ish can be seen as smug. I know I have sometimes dismissed things without really knowing the facts well enough, using my own "rationalist" gut instinct. I do not deny that I defer to authority at times, is there anyone so wise, well-read, well-rounded in all subjects that they can say they make all their decisions correctly and using only the contents of their own mind.It is important, though annoying, for me to face up to the huge number of shortcomings I have in my knowledge of nearly everything, but that doesn't mean that because I know there is much I don't know, that I should be easy prey to gurus who has parceled themselves in robes of "wisdom". If I am interested enough, when I am offered an answer, the modern world offers me many tools for investigation. 15 years ago, I presumed homeopathy was just some sort of herbal thing (still not much interested) and my bathroom cupboard had far too much from Holland and Barrett. Oh the powdered tree roots that may have come in useful to me then (i would like to make it clear that I am not dismissive of all tree roots)

There can be accusations of being close-minded, though I seem to notice that merchants of "something something quantum properties of the soul" gobbets like Deepak Chopra are very close-minded when it comes to anything that contradicts their vague, but oddly persuasive, feelgoodies and "oh the secrets of the cosmos beingness" balderdash (well, it seems like balderdash to me).

Some of the seemingly nonsensical ideas that drew me in as a child can still be fascinating, but for other reasons than the ones my child mind was drawn to.

Alien abductions may not tell us much about extraterrestrials, but they can be enlightening when looking at the human mind and the psychology that can help us understand why people feel they experience such things.

The Bermuda Triangle may be less of a spooky sea of mysterious sailor ghosts than than the documentary I watched at the Chesham fleapit, but it can be eye opening as a way of looking at statistics and their possible misuse for storytelling.

I have learnt that it is best to be both sceptical and cynical with news stories. As tedious as it is, one report is no longer enough for me to confidently talk on a murder, looting or political intrigue. Mind you, if it fits the way I want to think about the world, it might be enough for me to trying and hold court on it, even though I know I am something of an impostor.

With topics like climate change, I find that there are certain writers who I am cynical of their motives, though sceptical of their data.

I am aware that I question some publications the moment I start reading them, but others I have to jam a needle under my fingernail halfway through reading as, though I may believe they are allied to my concerns, I should not read them with utter unquestioning obedience.

I don't label myself a sceptic, the moment you badge yourself up, you may be in danger of being too much part of a group and then, as has happened for some, by aligning yourself with a gang, you can find yourself disappointed that they did not live up to all your hopes and dreams. It turns sour and, what was comradeship becomes betrayal because you expected too much. I'd have to be one of those failed Trotskyists that could find no middle ground and so leapt straight to an unquestioning, extreme right position, never imagining the problem may not have been the side, just the extremism.

I try not to be a cynic. I try to be sceptical. I am aware of some of my shortcomings, though expect to be surprised by new ones each month or year (okay, maybe each week). Though if you ever find me with my head stuck in a ditch, do not decide to leave me there because, as a true sceptic you think it would be impossible to decide if I might prefer to have head my head in a ditch, just pull me out please.

I am off touring Skeptics in the Pub, as well as with Josie Long and Grace Petrie and with my own new show about the human mind - I'll be everywhere from Teesside to Falmouth, Sheffield to Norwich, Nottingham to Gravesend and many, many more. Details

DVD of Happiness Through Science (with Brian Cox commentary) is
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